Bottled water is incredibly convenient. You can purchase it almost anywhere nowadays. When out and about, bottled water is the healthy choice among the sugary sodas, juices, and energy drinks that fill up the aisles of grocery stores. For many people across the world, bottled water continues to be the only safe source of drinking water. In a place like Edmonton, clean tap water is available in abundance. However, it is not uncommon to encounter people who refuse to drink anything but their favourite brand of bottled water. Is bottled water better than tap water? Let’s examine the difference in taste, quality, cost, and environmental impact of bottled vs. tap water.
Many people also would argue that bottled water tastes better and is cleaner than tap water. I had a friend in university that refused to drink tap water and would buy cases of bottled water instead. To see if he actually preferred bottled water we put the tap to the test. Without telling him which glass was bottled water and which glass was tap water, we got him to choose the water that he thought tasted the best. Believe it or not, he was certain that the glass full of tap water was of superior taste. After that experiment he finally accepted that tap water was not actually so bad, and may even taste better than the bottled water that he was constantly buying. This test has been replicated many times by scientists, classrooms, and curious citizens and there is no definitive answer. Some people prefer the taste of bottled water and some people prefer tap water. One study looking directly at premium water brands (including Fiji and Evian) found that people preferred the regular tap water to these brands, which are relatively expensive. Taste preference is extremely personal, so try your own blind taste test to see if you actually preferred bottled water or tap water. The answer may surprise you.
Surprisingly, bottled water is often of lower quality than tap water. Municipalities have very strict standards for tap water and test on a regular basis. Bottled water does not have the same standards or testing, and might not meet the same safety regulations as tap water. While bottled water is not allowed to have arsenic, lead, coliform bacteria, or poisonous substances in it under the Food and Drug Act, there are no regulations on any other water contaminants. Tap water undergoes much more rigorous and long-term testing to ensure that the water is contaminant-free under the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water. One of the contaminants that is becoming more common in bottled water is microplastic, which is being studied for impacts on the liver and the endocrine system. Also, up to 45% of bottled water in Canada comes from the same sources as municipal tap water, so you might actually be drinking tap water that has been bottled. There is very little evidence to suggest that bottled water is higher quality than tap water.
That being said, there are approximately 1000 drinking water advisories across Canada on any given day. In these communities there is a significant threat to the drinking water, meaning that you either cannot drink the tap water or that you must boil the tap water prior to drinking it. First Nations communities are disproportionately affected by drinking water advisories in Canada. Also, Canada has been home to a massive drinking water catastrophe in Walkerton, Ontario, where 7 people died and thousands of people got sick from E. coli contamination in the tap water. Since this event from 2000, Canada has stricter testing to avoid other potential contaminations. It is worth noting that historically there have been problems with Canadian tap water and safe, clean tap water is not available to all Canadians.
It will come as no surprise that bottled water is more expensive than tap water. It costs about $0.001 per litre of tap water, and anywhere from about $0.16 to $5.00 per litre of bottled water. People are paying 160% to 5,000% more for bottled water! When the tap water is not potable (meaning not good to drink) it can be very expensive for a family or a community to purchase bottled water instead.
There are many factors that demonstrate that bottled water has a greater environmental impact than tap water. First off, it takes at least twice the amount of water to make a plastic bottle of water than it does to fill a bottle with tap water since it takes water to make plastic. Second, bottled water takes over 2000 times more energy to produce than tap water. Third, bottled water produces billions of bottles every year, and only about 10% of plastic waste is recycled in Canada, meaning that the other 90% is sent to landfills or is in the environment on land or in waterbodies. It takes about 500 years for a plastic water bottle to decompose, and instead of breaking down, plastic breaks up into little pieces of microplastic, which are shown to have significant impacts on ecosystem health.